Saturday, November 20, 2010


By Peter Gutiérrez
Reading with Pictures

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally written for a Reading with Pictures project and was intended as a brief rationale for using comic literature to teach reading skills in the classroom. This article and accompanying artwork is free to reproduce by not-for-profit endeavors.)

To those who have witnessed graphic novels come of age over the past generation, their ability to enhance reading skills, and literacy skills more broadly, should come as no surprise. After all, most rich works of art in a sufficiently sophisticated medium will provide texts that readers must decode linguistically, symbolically, and narratively. And these days there’s little doubt about the legitimacy of comics and graphic novels as a robust art form.

Some of these literacy benefits may emerge spontaneously for middle and high school students. Others require that specific attention be paid to them—either by adult facilitators or students who have some meta-cognitive awareness of their own approach to reading. With this in mind, the following reading skills and strategies are offered, presented in a roughly ascending order according to Bloom’s Taxonomy.

At any point students can take a break in reading and verbally summarize what they’ve read up until then, a practice that both supports and assesses comprehension. The neat thing about comics is that the visuals can scaffold this process by aiding the recall of events and their sequence completely apart from the content of the print text. For example, you can ask students to scan the previous page, spread or section for a few seconds (or more, depending upon the text and the student) using the artwork as a prompt.

This is an area where research has shown the clear advantage of graphic storytelling in that young people are more likely to encounter new words, and words at a higher reading level, than when reading comparable texts for their age level. My own classroom experience confirms one important reason why graphic novels are so potent when it comes to vocabulary acquisition: in addition to providing the print-based context clues that prose works provide, they also provide visual context clues. Still, this is a two-way street—without explicit instruction, some below-level readers are likely to ignore unfamiliar words because they feel that the artwork helps “fill in the gaps” in their understanding of the print text. 

As with any extended narrative, stories told in comics form provide opportunities for readers to pause and reflect on where the story has been and where it might be headed. Graphic novels provide a powerful way to leverage this comprehension strategy because of their naturally occurring and easily recognizable structural breaks. Indeed, effective storytellers often exploit the most common of such breaks by using the “page flip” to both conceal unexpected plot points and then dramatically reveal them when they do occur. Coach students not to turn pages so quickly but rather stop and ask what will they think will transpire in the spread they’re about to encounter. In addition, graphic novels that are collections of serialized stories, such as Watchmen, allow readers to make predictions about upcoming events on the chapter level. Many such sections will therefore end with cliffhangers whose entire purpose is to encourage readers to speculate on future story developments.

Richly developed teen characters populate the graphic novel KATMAN, and their interior states are partly conveyed by an art-within-art device in which the protagonist Kit is depicted as a fictional manga character created by Jess. Note the effective use of the page-flip: the odd-numbered right-hand page ends with a moment that's perfect for readers to make a prediction ––"What do you think Jess will reveal?"––and the following left-hand page provides the answer. (KATMAN © Kevin Pyle. Used by permission.)

Wordless passages in graphic novels present a unique platform to practice oral language. Simply have a reader verbally narrate such a section, providing exposition and dialogue as necessary. If working in a group, others can be instructed to listen closely and then to express what they would change in their own narration of the passage. THE ARRIVAL by Shaun Tan, a 2008 YALSA “Best Book for Young Adults,” is an entire graphic novel without words. Furthermore, Stephen Cary’s book GOING GRAPHIC presents a variety of comics-based activities that support the oral language skills of English Language Learners—most of which could apply to native speakers as well.

If one looks closely enough, one finds that graphic fiction presents a wide range of text types, from in-art labels/signs to detailed maps, that can form the basis for reinforcing the formal aspects of such texts. And let’s not forget facsimiles of newspaper headlines and columns—after all, consider the occupations of both Clark Kent and Peter Parker. Also, graphic nonfiction routinely presents cutaway diagrams, timelines, charts, and so on, and does so in a meaningful, often interdisciplinary, context.

Graphic novels might seem open to criticism for their lack of interiority, a distinguishing feature of effective prose whether in novels or first-person nonfiction—the reader’s sense of being “in” the narrative via a point-of-view character. That’s because graphic storytelling shows the protagonist, who therefore appears as “external” and makes reader identification more difficult. Comics commonly give readers access to internal states though the device of thought bubbles. A fun activity, then, is to shift point-of-view in the middle of a reading by asking, “If we drew a thought bubble above Character X’s head, what would he or she be thinking?” At a more advanced level of literature study, readers can explore how well-regarded first-person works such as AMERICAN BORN CHINESE, MAUS, and PERSEPOLIS convey subjectivity (i.e., composition, visual symbolism, and the metaphoric use of black and white, respectively).

Another outstanding example of contemporary graphic literature about adolescence is REFRESH, REFRESH, whose theme is the impact of war on families and teens. Rather than employ thought bubbles or narrative captions to express a character's inner feelings, the storytelling uses the compositional space metaphorically to suggest isolation and loneliness. In addition, the in-story use of a different text forma––e-mail––provides an elegant way for readers to get a sense of a son's longing for his absent father. (REFRESH, REFRESH © Danica Novgorodoff, Benjamin Percy, and James Ponsoldt. Used by permission.)

For many years it was common to equate graphic storytelling with a single genre—superheroes. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case and those who look to the medium to help foster a lifelong love of independent reading know that they can offer young people works of merit in genres that range from memoir to mystery, from romance to reportage. In addition, such graphic titles can enrich instruction of traditional literature by approaching its themes with different emphases and from fresh angles. The selections in James Bucky Carter’s NCTE book Building Literacy with Graphic Novels makes just these sorts of connections between canon works such as Beowulf, Oliver Twist, and The Scarlet Letter and graphic novels by acclaimed creators. In addition, popular titles can reinforce or allude to motifs and themes from canon lit (Moby Dick in BONE) and classical mythology (X-MEN), providing motivation for students to explore the literary sources that the creators used as touchstones. 

The important thing to keep in mind is that any graphic work does not automatically bestow tremendous literacy benefits for every young reader. Rather, one needs to expose readers to quality texts that are age-appropriate. Then again, that’s what one would expect from a mature medium with a diversity subject matter and creators. After all, handing a young person any book at all is probably a step in the right direction, but when worthy titles are supported by medium-specific strategies such as those outlined above… well, that’s when magic can take place.

Peter Gutiérrez writes on graphica and education for publications such as BookShelf, School Library Journal, and Graphic Novel Reporter. He can be found on Twitter at @Peter_Gutierrez  or by email at

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